After the end of the Bernie Sanders campaign, we have no shortage of takes on why Bernie lost. Pointing fingers in directions that confirm their preexisting political convictions, analysts claim the working class rejected socialism, or nonvoters will never vote, or that Bernie should have pivoted from insurgency to a party unity message to win over Democrats, or that the campaign should have pushed harder against Biden. Many of these arguments are worth engaging with. But as explanations of why the campaign didn’t come out on top, those takeaways don’t fit with what I observed in my ten months of on-the-ground organizing for the Sanders campaign in Iowa and Illinois.
The Bernie campaign was about organizing. We aimed to organize a multiracial, working-class coalition of people behind a presidential campaign that represented their values, not the interests of the rich. Over and over again in Iowa, I saw people transformed by conversations about Sanders and his platform, communities rally around the possibility of change, and new supporters take their first steps into political organizing.
We preached that our campaign would build a new working-class movement in this country, a tall order even for a country with a more established and functional Left than the United States. Our problem was not that we set this as a goal for ourselves — it was that our applied strategy stopped short of even attempting to reach this goal.
If the campaign leadership had been uniformly committed to the goal of building a working-class left movement through a presidential campaign, then our campaign would have looked very different. For instance, we would have invested in physical field staff in every state far earlier. We also would have treated our “distributed organizing” program, a virtual program coordinating volunteers across the country to run their own canvassing and phone-banking operations, as supplemental to paid staff rather than as a cheaper replacement.
Our campaign leadership made several major gambles that were not in sync with the values or espoused strategy of our campaign. But rather than ignore our flaws or write off our campaign for its failures, we owe it to ourselves to identify what we did that worked, and why and how we should have gone further to build a unified, grassroots left movement that could win the policies in Bernie’s platform and much more.
A Campaign at Odds With Itself
I landed in Iowa as a field organizer in early June 2019. From the first week on the ground, my comrades and I heard of internal struggles between senior campaign advisers advocating for traditional electoral campaigning and the grassroots organizing–minded leadership trying to enact our campaign’s own radical theory of change.
Central to that theory animating those of us who were grassroots organizing–minded was the idea that winning policies like Medicare for All and the Workplace Democracy Act would require more than just getting people to vote for Sanders. It would require a bottom-up, grassroots organizing strategy to motivate disenchanted and angry working-class people to embrace a politics of hope and outnumber or win over establishment-leaning voters.
Our goal was to seed the growth of working-class organizing or unify current organizing efforts in every part of the country where we had a field program. We would do this by having more trained, strategic, face-to-face organizing conversations than any campaign in history. This was explicit from my first day on the campaign. The training that field organizers went through in Iowa was not just about how to use the voter database NGP VAN or best practices for canvassing. Onboarding for field organizers included training on political analysis and the nature of power in politics. Organizers weren’t just being trained to move people to win an election but to understand how to attack the root causes of the daily injustices in their lives. We aimed to identify and train future leaders and unify with current leaders from community groups, unions, issues-based organizations, and down-ballot campaigns who would have an active collaborator in Bernie Sanders.
A perfect example of this occurred midway through the summer in Iowa, before many campaigns had even put field staff on the ground. The campaign decided to hold a series of grassroots organizing trainings with volunteer leaders. In these training sessions, we discussed how neoliberalism had led us to our current crisis. We trained volunteer leaders to organize people around their day-to-day issues and trained them on how to share their own issues using tools like “My Bernie Story,” a conversational formula for connecting personal issues to platform policies. We trained these leaders on how to agitate others and make hard asks of their friends and family to get involved in organizing. We trained them on how to hold others accountable to the commitments they made.
Throughout these training sessions, we made it clear that these are not just tools for an electoral campaign. These are the same fundamentals we use to build highly effective grassroots community organizing campaigns, labor campaigns, and more. After the training sessions, we even brainstormed with people what their next local organizing target might be once the Bernie campaign ended.
Our goal was that these leaders and their campaigns would unify with each other and with existing progressive organizations to create a lasting left infrastructure that would take on the DNC, RNC, and their parent corporations. No other presidential campaign that I have ever heard of went out of its way to balance the daily grind of voter identification and turnout with deeper grassroots leadership development the way our campaign did in Iowa.
When I was promoted to regional field director for Southeast Iowa in September, I was shown a fuller picture of what we needed to accomplish in order to win the caucus. It was only at this point that I understood how herculean a feat this balancing act between grassroots development and meeting traditional electoral metrics was — and quickly gained an even greater respect for our state leaderships’ commitment to building a unified grassroots movement.
Our state leadership’s commitment to this goal was crucial to what inspired our army of volunteers to win the popular vote in Iowa. This commitment is all the more impressive since it seems members of national leadership and the logic of traditional electioneering were arguing against it.
Despite the immense challenge of pulling off such a feat, our state leadership held to their values. Even well into the fall, our explicit goal was to balance this longer-term investment in grassroots militancy with our electoral goals.
For instance, on November 1, every other campaign in Iowa was spending tens of thousands of dollars on box seats in the Wells Fargo Arena for the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson fundraiser in Des Moines. Our state leadership, on the other hand, directed us to bring buses of 1,500 volunteers from every corner of the state to “March Against Corporate Greed” right through the middle of that fundraiser — with Bernie Sanders himself at the helm.
Our state leadership understood that many Iowa Bernie volunteers, especially those from rural, conservative parts of the state, are often quite lonely in their demands for social-democratic policies like Medicare for All. This march presented an often-missing feeling of camaraderie and shared struggle that helped sustain the tireless canvassing and activism of Bernie volunteers across the state. Even after the caucus, many of our Iowa volunteers, who continue their activism both in and out of the electoral field, look back on that march as a shining, hopeful, unifying moment that presented a concrete vision of the power they can have in their state. State leadership knew that “Not Me, Us” meant winning an election would accomplish little without a sustainable, militant, multiracial left to demand the policies we are fighting for. This march helped Bernie volunteers and staff craft a vision of what that fighting Left could look like and gave us all a sense of hope and energy to dive headfirst into the hard winter months before the caucus.
Yet no matter the energy and vision of our campaign or the popularity of our candidate and his policies, we knew we faced implacable opposition from the media, billionaires, and elite neoliberal Democrats. If we were to win, we needed to train millions of supporters to get out of their comfort zone and have blunt conversations with their disenchanted neighbors about health care, capitalism, corporate power, and bad bosses. Through face-to-face engagement, we sought to begin coordinating a larger left movement by unifying leftists with independents, disaffected nonvoters, persuadable Trump supporters, and anxious Democrats.
Unfortunately, strategies rooted in this theory of change were never seriously implemented beyond a handful of states: California, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada.
Building for the Long Term
In Iowa, the Bernie campaign invested in over eight months of paid field organizing, longer than almost any other campaign. In the first six months we explicitly balanced traditional electoral strategy with grassroots engagement and development. We took every opportunity to do the kind of organizing that would build that broader Left for the long term — before the needs of the caucus made any other focus impossible.
Through our field program, we built up super-volunteer and activist networks focused on direct voter contact, precinct captain recruitment, and “get out the caucus” operations. We complemented our general field program with a robust constituency program focused on organizing ethnic, religious, and labor communities, as well as a student organizing program focused on campus-to-campus organization development in the style of national groups like Student Action and Young Democratic Socialists of America.
This uniquely comprehensive strategy was reflective of the backgrounds of our state leadership. One of our state field directors, Brooke Adams, was previously a highly successful lead staff organizer of a national student organizing network and a leader in student organizing herself. Her experience with moving students to action was key to building a strategy that resulted in inordinately high student turnout in Iowa compared to other states.
Additionally, our state director, Misty Rebik, spent a significant portion of her career building a worker’s center with low-wage and immigrant workers. Her commitment to having this campaign both win an election and be a vehicle for building grassroots power was evident in every communication from the top.
The Bernie campaign in other early voting states adopted one or more of these paid-staff strategies. For instance, staff organizers on the ground in California invested heavily in a Latino constituency organizing program and student organizing program as part of one large, unified field program. New Hampshire, on the other hand, put a heavier emphasis on organizing students to turn out other students. Nevada focused far more of its resources on building a Latino-constituency organizing program where working-class Latino leaders organized their own communities.
South Carolina stands out as an exception, with similar organizing programs that did not prove as successful. I wasn’t on the ground in that state, so I won’t attempt to make claims that explain this loss — that’s a postmortem for someone else to write. One thing that is clear, however, is that the Sanders campaign simply did not show the same commitment to winning South Carolina that it showed for other early states.
Field staff on the ground struggled to get comparable funding, resources, and staff that every other early state had access to. Whatever calculus members of national leadership used for funding organizing programs in these early states left South Carolina largely out of the equation. Everywhere else the campaign intentionally and avidly committed its resources for organizing programs, we saw victories.
The common factor across these states that won — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California — was that the campaign gave us the time, resources, and local autonomy to build with grassroots organizations and train volunteer leaders to mobilize nonvoters, independents, and those suspicious of electoral politics. All my discussions with field staff from these states showed we had a shared theory in our field programs: it won’t matter if we win this election if we don’t unify and build grassroots power ready to fight in the name of our platform. Presidential power won’t be able to win sustained, systemic change at the national level without a unified grassroots movement guiding and enforcing it.
With this idea at our foundation, each state campaign was able to then tailor their specific organizing strategies and tactics to what they saw as most effective on the ground. Our demonstrable early successes in these states made what came later so heartbreaking.
A Fatal Gamble
You would think that, watching the organizing strategy of the early states consistently raise our standing in the polls, key advisers to the Bernie campaign would have replicated it in later states. They did not. Instead, those advisers gambled that early victories, won with on-the-ground investments in longer-term grassroots organizing, would build media attention and clinch the “electability argument” for voters in later states who worried that Bernie couldn’t defeat Trump.
Unfortunately, this assumed that “electability” was the real concern for these usually establishment voters — when any volunteer who went through our canvassing training could tell you this was often just a red-herring argument voters used to hide their own distaste for the campaign’s politics.
We made it clear when training canvassers that they were going to run into people who would say, “I like Bernie, but we need somebody less out-there who can actually carry liberals and conservatives if we’re going to beat Trump.” We trained our canvassers to respond to this “electability” argument by saying, “I hear you. Part of why I’m a Bernie supporter is his ability to beat Trump. Almost every national poll shows Bernie beating Trump. Also, the reality is, Bernie has the most activist base with the most enthusiasm, and if we’re going to be able to beat Trump’s base we’re going to need that enthusiasm.” Canvassers were trained to then share a struggle they experience, why they are enthusiastic for Bernie’s plan to address it, and return the conversation to the voter’s day-to-day issues and what it would take to address them. We trained canvassers to then move on to the next person if people weren’t persuaded.
We consistently found that “electability” voters didn’t care about the “evidence” of the polls showing Bernie had just as good a chance at beating Trump as any other Democratic candidate. Instead, most of these establishment voters ignored polls, donor information, and all traditional metrics of political viability in order to maintain steadfast doubt. We ended the canvassing conversation on the issues because we understood that the few of these “electability” folks we could move, would be moved by getting them grounded in the day-to-day issues they wanted to see change. We knew we wouldn’t get anywhere by showing them the umpteenth sign that Bernie was the best chance to beat Trump.
That’s why it is so frustrating to realize that members of the campaign leadership must have been gambling our victory since early in the campaign on winning over these “electability” voters with earned media from early state successes. They should have known what staffers like me were seeing on the ground: these voters couldn’t be won by passive evidence of actual electability. The few that were convinced to vote for Bernie in those early states were convinced through difficult, honest, face-to-face conversations that made them see national electoral politics as personal. The “electability” voters that couldn’t be persuaded had to be overwhelmed in those early states by organizing that much larger mass of independents and nonvoters. But organizing those disaffected people in later states did not happen at the scale it needed to thanks to our campaign leadership’s strategy.
While the campaign was investing heavily in paid field staff in early states, its groundbreaking distributed-organizing program, which activated local networks of supporters into decentralized volunteer field operations, was developing organizing infrastructure in later states. This distributed-organizing program had supporters sign up to go through a virtual volunteer training program run by DC staff. Once trained, these volunteers would be given the resources to run their own phone banks and canvasses in their communities.
The paid field staff sent from earlier states, where we had invested heavily in long-term grassroots engagement, to later states, where we thus far only had a distributed-organizing presence, found that we were expected to keep the campaign’s predicted momentum going with a couple weeks or months of small, understaffed, paid-field operations built on and strengthened by the distributed-organizing program.
But this strategy was soon stymied. The DNC and media downplayed every early state victory, denying us the momentum from earned media the campaign leadership had been banking on. And the distributed-organizing model’s strength also turned out to be its greatest weakness: it reached only activists.
The distributed-organizing program devised by the Bernie campaign was and continues to be a revolutionary invention for systematized, decentralized organizing. It’s incredible that so many Bernie supporters were immediately ready to invest their time, energy, and money into electoral volunteering. We had volunteers who were willing and able to navigate a virtual training program and who were unafraid to go out and preach the gospel in their community.
But overlooked was the fact that these kinds of Bernie supporters did not usually know or even live near those disenchanted nonvoters that our campaign had explicitly made it our mission to organize with. People ready and able to engage in virtual organizing programs know and often live around others like them.
Our goal was to persuade those distrustful of electoral politics to take grassroots power through presidential politics. We should have understood that to accomplish that we needed to make intentional decisions to reach into disaffected communities and have hard, honest conversations on a large scale. Instead, we left it to chance that self-guided activists, working with far fewer resources than paid staff, would seek out, identify, and focus on these communities.
If engaging these communities in later states the way we did in early states was even actually considered a goal by the national leadership, then a virtual program of self-selecting, gung ho activists was a risky way to try to accomplish it. Instead, if we had hired field staff much earlier, like we did in Iowa, in those later states and strategically combined their operation with the distributed-organizing program, we would have had far greater ability to make intentional strategic choices about where to focus our attention.
To reach the disengaged voter that our campaign promised to turn out (and needed to win), we should have doubled down on outreach strategies proven successful in Iowa and other early states.
The Ottumwa Meatpacking Success
The strategies we used in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California were aimed to both mobilize the activists and persuade the mistrustful, independents, and nonvoters. We did this by staffing up early, heavily, and from the local communities we were organizing in, and took the much-needed opportunity to focus on regions and populations where the campaign was weakest.
Staffing up early provided time to build grassroots networks in places lacking existing networks of political activists. Staffing up heavily allowed for effective relationship and community building that kept people participating in long-term activism. This staff power meant that by mid-summer of 2019, we were embedded with supporters in otherwise apathetic or hostile communities and training them in persuasion and team building.
In my region, several of these leaders phone banked and canvassed once or twice a week for months through the summer, sometimes going out completely on their own into deeply conservative towns. It allowed us to do things like host events four months before the caucus, in three-hundred-person towns, that still brought in twenty people simply to talk about Bernie’s plan to win systemic change. In most cases, those we embedded with early in the summer ended up playing crucial roles in “get out the caucus” and the caucus itself. Many continued to see their role as activists and organizers even after the caucus. Finally, hiring local community members ensured that already-present relationships and local knowledge extended our reach to larger swaths of the population than DNC- and data model–based lists could.
The perfect example of the importance of these three components was the satellite caucus of the Ottumwa meatpacking plant. Meagan Day reported on the plant’s satellite caucus for Jacobin, explaining how union and workplace satellite caucuses were a linchpin in moving us to a delegate count tie in Iowa. The story of how that specific satellite caucus came to be is instructive.
In June, when I first arrived as a field organizer in Ottumwa, I met with the leadership of UFCW (United Food & Commercial Workers) Local 230, the union for that plant, in order to begin building a relationship with one of the community’s few bodies of organized people. I invited this leadership to our first debate watch party at a local bar as an opportunity to get to know them better. The union’s political director arrived, and we began to talk about his already-present support for Bernie.
I made it clear that it wasn’t my job to secure an endorsement from anyone — that was the political department’s job. Instead, I shared stories with him about my personal experiences as a union organizer, organizing hospital nurses in Chicago, and how much more successful we could have been if we’d had the Workplace Democracy Act. We talked about the massive subsidy the United States Department of Agriculture (UDSA) had just given to the meat plant’s parent company, JBS. JBS responded to receiving this subsidy by speeding up the lines on the workers, leading to an uptick in injuries. I shared with him that under Bernie’s Revitalizing Rural America act Iowa would no longer have a right-to-work law, making it harder for JBS to get away with attacking the union.
He mentioned that he’d been thinking about bucking the international union and moving an endorsement vote to their local’s leadership. I encouraged him to have his union go all in for the Bernie campaign, acknowledging the powerful message that would send to locals across the country about bottom-up organizing.
He said he’d consider it. The union endorsed a week later.
In October, we hired a super-volunteer from Ottumwa as the primary field organizer for her own county. She happened to be an ex-security guard from the town’s meatpacking plant. In January, we hired another super-volunteer as a full-time organizing intern who was a local social worker for the region. She was also, crucially, fluent in Spanish and French, two languages spoken by many of the plant’s immigrant workers.
When the satellite caucus plan began coming together, the campaign contacted that Local 230 political director to register the caucus site. When our labor constituency organizer presented a plan to get workers to that caucus, our ex-security guard organizer knew how to canvass the plant without getting harassed by security. When our multilingual organizer spent four nights in a week from midnight to 3 AM registering people for this caucus, she could do it in three different languages. Finally, because of this canvassing, an Ethiopian rank-and-file leader was identified who ended up convincing his coworkers to attend the historic first satellite caucus, winning it fourteen to one for Bernie.
The news stories from this tiny satellite caucus would be some of the only excitement that the Bernie campaign could hold on to after the Iowa caucus was utterly bungled by the Iowa Democratic Party and our narrative was successfully muddled by Pete Buttigieg claiming victory. Still, because of this one small caucus, we showed Bernie supporters that what we were doing worked and that we should keep going.
If we hadn’t staffed up early, heavily, and locally to mobilize activists and engage mistrustful and disaffected nonvoters in the mission of building long-term grassroots power, we never would have had the time and resources to secure a victory for Bernie at that caucus.
Paid Staff and the Limits of Organizing Activists
Unfortunately for our campaign, we were not given the opportunity to staff up early, heavily, and locally in forty-five out of fifty states. At the same time that we were staffing up in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California and were developing programs that could organize overlooked and disaffected constituencies, the distributed-organizing program could only engage with those volunteers ready, willing, and able to navigate a virtual training program.
In Chicago, the distributed-program volunteers and Bernie victory captains, volunteers that committed to spending ten hours a week organizing for the campaign, were overwhelmingly grouped in younger, wealthier, and whiter areas. The vast majority of Bernie victory captains were on the North Side, the wealthier and white region of the city, and around university campuses like the University of Chicago. Very few participants in the distributed organizing program were in the South and West Side neighborhoods, where we most needed months of canvassing conversations. But because paid field staff arrived in Illinois only a month before the primary, we had no time for the massive number of face-to-face conversations with the disenchanted and nonvoters in these communities that we needed if we hoped to tip the scales over establishment voters.
In the campaign’s treatment of forty-five out of fifty states we saw an exacerbation of the problem field staff in South Carolina had experienced: not enough resources to engage with predictable challenges. For instance, we’ve known since the 2016 Sanders campaign that Bernie has struggled to present a vision of political revolution that resonates with many black Americans, especially black voters. In South Carolina, we saw two-thirds of black voters go for Joe Biden.
The campaign leadership could have predicted that a distributed-organizing program in black communities where Bernie had little support to begin with was unlikely to work. Instead, the campaign leadership could have hired field staff early, heavily, and from these local communities as we did in early voting states to build common ground through long-term grassroots organizing. Unfortunately, paid field staff were given far fewer, and far shorter, opportunities to have intentional face-to-face conversations in the vast majority of communities across the country where we needed to have them.
Paid staff, crucially, can start organizing earlier and more broadly than distributed-organizing program volunteers. If we hadn’t shown up in Iowa and other early states nearly a year before their caucuses and primaries, we simply wouldn’t have had time to conduct the thousands of critical conversations in communities where our support was weak.
Our distributed-organizing program was an important innovation and should be a part of future campaigns. But it needs to be wedded to a strategy of long-term paid field staff focused on building coalitions with local organizations, developing new activists and organizers, and training people to have effective conversations. Effective organizing conversations may be difficult and expensive to carry out on a grand scale but, realistically, they are the only way we can know for sure that we are communicating with people as genuine individuals and not just demographics or voting blocs.
Ad campaigns and yard signs might carry an establishment candidate far, because all they need is more name recognition, but for a candidate like Bernie and a movement like ours, we needed to go out and talk to people. The vast majority of people won’t be persuaded to give up preconceived notions about universal health care, unions, and democratic socialism because of catchy slogans or good graphic design. The vast majority of people need you to establish with them at least an iota of trust by identifying shared human experience if they’re going to let you persuade them to take action they never thought they’d take.
Anyone who came out to canvass for Bernie in Iowa probably has a story to share about talking to a totally disenchanted nonvoter or a Trump supporter or a fed-up Democratic voter, and finding common ground that ended up getting that person to commit to caucus for Bernie. Once, when I was canvassing in a working-class area of Ottumwa near that same meatpacking plant, I met a Republican couple who started the conversation by saying “Oh, you’re barking up the wrong tree — we have never voted Democrat, and we never will.” They proceeded to make it clear that they wanted a wall to keep out all the immigrants who were taking jobs at the plant and then, “losing their work visas and becoming criminals. That’s why crime has been rising around here.”
I started by making it clear that I have no great love for the Democratic Party and do not identify as a Democrat, either. I then asked them why they thought this plant hired so many immigrants. The husband responded, “They’ll work for cheaper, and the illegal ones won’t talk back because they don’t want to get deported.” I asked them who benefited the most when immigrant workers lost their work visas and thus their ability to advocate for themselves on the job without fear of being fired. They said they knew immigrants were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their families, but that they should do it legally.
I asked them if they knew how long it takes to become a naturalized citizen, and if they thought there would be less crime if we made it significantly easier to immigrate and become naturalized? They said they’d never thought about that.
I told them, “Look, I’m a Bernie supporter because I know that workers can only win what we need to survive if we stick together. I once worked with a unit of forty nurses who had been underpaid for nearly a decade! It wasn’t until they organized a union, went on strike, and called out the boss over and over again that they won better wages and work conditions. It was a struggle, but they stuck together and they won! Bernie’s Workplace Democracy Act is the only legislation that wants to make that kind of organizing easier. Under the act, working people, immigrant and native, can stop fighting over scraps from the boss and demand that the boss provide enough for everyone, because we know they’ve got the money for it! Don’t you think crime would go down around here if JBS employed more people and paid better?”
The wife responded, “That’s how it used to be!”
After fifteen minutes of questions that reoriented their anger toward those in power, both Republicans committed to register as Democrats for one night, in order to caucus for Bernie.
These kinds of conversations, whether conducted by paid staff or volunteers, didn’t happen by chance in Iowa. They happened because paid staff were given the time and resources to find pockets of disenchanted and angry voters, engage those voters in effective, uncomfortable conversations, and train volunteers to do the same on a grand scale. The abundance of comparable canvassing stories from the states that Bernie won suggest how much further we could have gotten if the campaign had committed to paid staff that were on the ground early across the country.
Our theory of change made the case that we needed to mobilize activists and persuade independent and disaffected voters if we were to have any hope of building the grassroots power we need in order to win massive policies like Medicare for All. That means we needed to invest in paid staff early, heavily, and locally all over the country, not just in a handful of early states. In these later states, we could have let a distributed-organizing program mobilize the activists, while paid staff went in early and focused on having trained conversations on a massive scale in communities where we knew we lacked a ready volunteer base.
Of course, early and substantial commitment to paid staff is expensive. Quarter-to-quarter campaign funding makes it almost impossible to put staff physically throughout the country all at once, especially the number of staff we had in those early states. Even the juggernaut fundraising apparatus of the Bernie campaign would have been hard-pressed.
Still, every future campaign that wants to pursue the same lofty goals as the Bernie campaign has to recognize that there is no replacing geographically localized, hyper-effective field staff. Campaigns, instead, should use distributed-organizing programs to strategically direct self-starting activists operating in their own, more supportive communities. While distributed organizing builds and maintains support in these communities, field staff can find, persuade, and train volunteers in communities where support is weaker. Those canvassers can then have the hundreds of thousands of conversations we need in order to overwhelm the establishment voting bloc.
Our Work Continues
It was always an incredibly tall and improbable order for a single electoral campaign, even one as innovative and powerful as the Bernie campaign, to be expected to build from scratch, rebuild, and unify activist networks in every corner of this country — particularly in a country with such a weak labor movement and disorganized Left. We must continue to build a national working-class left organization that will organize beyond cycles and establish mass organizing infrastructure that can drive left electoral campaigns.
Imagine if the Bernie campaign had been able to geographically hyper-focus its investment in paid field staff because most communities had the grassroots organizing presence of a self-sustaining national left organization moving an electoral program. What if paid staff had been able to focus on the few communities that this mass organization wasn’t strong in, while a distributed-organizing program coordinated the ranks of this organization around a single campaign strategy? What could our physical field program and distributed program have accomplished if, instead of having to build or rebuild activist networks willing to fight for a chance at a left movement with presidential power, there were networks already organizing people to support a common left platform and candidate?
Many ex-Bernie staffers and volunteers are joining Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in order to build the kind of infrastructure that was missing and desperately needed during the campaign. DSA is working hard to find or put up left working-class candidates with track records of fighting for working people. They’re also reaching out to those understandably distrustful of electoral or left politics to try to build a common vision of a US electoral system led and powered by a multiracial, working-class left movement. They do this recognizing that, despite the corporatized national political system’s frequent bastardization and co-optation of social justice movements, the parties and the presidency in our country hold too much power to ignore. Everyone who wants to pave the way for a left party and presidency that can accomplish substantive change should join with a national mass organization like DSA and get to work.
Our task as leftists seeking national electoral power is to build the kind of mass organization that would allow the next campaign to strategically focus its staff and funds on disaffected voters, independents, and nonvoters like we did in Iowa. In that future, with a stronger Left and labor movement at our backs, paid field programs should organize where we are weakest, while cheaper distributed-organizing programs should direct already-primed activists and organizers where we’re strongest.
Our job as organizers, as leftists, as people who believe this country can be something better than it is now, is to create the conditions that can allow a single campaign to enact this strategy effectively in every state in the nation.
We must grow, unify, and support grassroots power organizations in every state and city that will spend the next four years running local community, labor, and down-ballot campaigns that can be used as an opportunity to move more and more of the disenchanted into action to take institutional power. This way, the next left presidential campaign will have the ability to use expensive paid field staff in the hyper-effective way we showed we can be used in Iowa and other early states. Field staff can be the organizers who intentionally go and talk with those people who usually get ignored. Combine highly focused field staff with a massive army of trained volunteer organizers and activists being led by a distributed program and a campaign could have the kind of hyper-coordination that we’ll need in order to overcome an institution as intractable as the Democratic National Committee.
I’m convinced that we could have won this campaign, despite the long odds and heavy cost. Maybe we never could have overcome the corporate-backed power of the DNC. Maybe we were never going to persuade and organize the disaffected in later primary states to support Bernie. Maybe.
But from what I saw on the ground, if our campaign leadership had been unified in their commitment to developing long-term grassroots power by organizing with already-existing activists and the disenchanted, and made the budgetary decisions to allow us to invest more in early paid field organizing across the country, we would have had a better chance.
In Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and California, Bernie 2020 gave us the opportunity to do bottom-up, grassroots organizing centered on democratic-socialist values. We organized with poor and working-class voters who had never interacted with a left canvasser before. We organized with students emerging as political activists. We built a coalition of seasoned leftists, youthful idealists, apolitical conspiracy theorists, everything in between and alongside, and everyone saw we were doing something different on a massive scale — something that millions of Americans found compelling.
We proved that a campaign can beat long odds when it puts field staff into a state early, heavily, and hired from the local community. Our distributed model proved that activists across this country are primed for action and simply need to be pointed in one direction to accomplish incredible things. We made some mistakes, but we can learn from those mistakes to ensure that the next time we have an opportunity like the one Bernie presented us with, we win.